How Much Energy Does the World Need?

Clarifying the 21st Century Energy and Climate Challenges


Global energy consumption is expected to rise dramatically in the coming decades. But established projections don’t even come close to accounting for the additional capacity it will take to ensure modern energy access for all. As a result, most climate stabilization scenarios presume 1 to 2 billion people living without electricity in 2035. Above, a Rohingya child holds a candle outside his tent at a crowded internally displaced persons camp on the outskirts of Sittwe, Myanmar, in November 2012. Only one in four currently have access to electricity in Myanmar according to the Asian Development Bank. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images.

February 26, 2013 | Roger Pielke Jr

In the early 1920s, when my grandparents were just small children, only about 40% of Americans had access to electricity. Over the course of a generation that number reached close to 100%. Today, inexpensive, reliable and plentiful access to electricity is something that most people in OECD countries take for granted. I was reminded about this when I attended the recent annual meeting of the Colorado Rural Electric Association, a group that decidedly does not take electricity for granted. The meeting was opened by appealing to core shared values: “The greatest thing on earth is to have the love of God in your heart, and the next greatest thing is to have electricity in your house."

Yet billions of people around the world today do not have electricity in their houses. And while most projections see energy use expanding greatly in the coming decades, they also expect 1 to 2 billion to be living without electricity even by 2035. That may very well be the future we get. But it doesn’t have to be the future we work toward. To the extent that we allow such forecasts to constrain our debates over global energy and climate change mitigation, we do a disservice to the global poor, whose future wellbeing will undoubtedly require more-robust energy access.

The US Energy Information Administration, for example, projects that world energy consumption will increase by the equivalent of about 4,000 power plants in 2035 (about 1.7% per year) — or from 500 quads to 770 quads. A “quad” is a quadrillion BTUs, or about the same energy produced over a year by 15 1-gigawatt power plants, e.g., nuclear, coal or gas. While 4,000 new power plants worth of energy consumption sounds like a lot, after taking projected population growth into account, by 2035 global per capita energy use increases only by about 23% (data from the World Bank and the United Nations). In other words, from 2010 to 2035 global per capita energy consumption is projected to grow from about the average per capita consumption of Chile today to that of Croatia today, which is not a big change.

Advancing global human development requires that we ask different questions.

Rather than starting from today and asking how much energy the world might consume in 2035, let’s turn the question upside down. Let’s postulate different levels of energy access, efficiency, and equity for 2035, and ask what it would imply in terms of required energy supply, applying an approach that policy wonks call “backcasting.”

For instance, consider sub-Saharan Africa (minus South Africa), which today has about 30 gigawatts of electricity generating capacity, according to Morgan Bazilian, Deputy Director of the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis. To raise the region to the average per capita electricity access available in South Africa would require 1,000 gigawatts (source here in PDF). In other words, sub-Saharan Africa would need to increase its installed capacity by 33 times to reach the level of energy use enjoyed by South Africans — and 100 times to reach that of Americans.  The scale of the energy access challenge is enormous.

For this exercise I am going to start with a focus on electricity consumption, and use three countries in 2010 as analogies -- Bulgaria, Germany and the United States -- to represent low, medium and high levels of energy access assuming levels of efficiency and equity similar to each. In 2010 Bulgaria saw about 4,500 kWh of electricity consumption per capita per year, Germany 7,100 and the US 13,400. For comparison, the International Energy Agency defines “energy access” to be about 250 kWh per household per year, or about 2% of that used in the average American household. The global average in 2010 was just under 3,000 kWh per capita per year.

The implied increase in electricity consumption by 2035 to bring the world average to Bulgaria, Germany and US 2010 levels is 88%, 200% and 460%. These represent annual increases in electricity consumption of 2.6%, 4.5% and 7.2% respectively.  Because the EIA projects electricity production to grow at a rate faster than overall energy consumption, the Bulgaria (low) scenario is similar to its projection for overall growth in global energy consumption to 2035.

Bulgaria’s 2010 GDP was $14,160 (World Bank PPP Dollars), and the world average was $11,500. Attaining a 2035 global average per capita GDP equal to that of Bulgaria in 2010 implies an annual GDP global growth rate of 0.8%, which seems low, both in historical perspective and with respect to expectations. In contrast, Germany’s 2010 GDP was $40,230 and the US was $48,820, which if were to be the global average in 2035 imply annual growth rates of 4.5% and 7.2% respectively.

Let’s try to put these numbers into perspective with respect to total energy consumption in 2035. In terms of quads, the low, medium and high scenarios imply a total 2035 consumption of 940, 1,500 and 2,310 quads, or an increase over the EIA 2035 projection of 170, 1,000 and 1,810 quads. These represent the equivalent of a doubling, a tripling and more than a quadrupling of global energy consumption in 2010. Of course, different assumptions (e.g., about electricity vs. liquid fuels, etc.) will lead to different numbers, but qualitatively much the same results. Global energy access as you and I understand the concept implies massive amounts of new energy.

Another way to evaluate these numbers is to compare them to the magnitude of the energy challenge implied by policies seeking to address climate change. Decarbonizing the global economy to a degree consistent with low stabilization targets for atmospheric carbon dioxide implies replacing about 80% of current energy – about 400 quads – and meeting all future energy demand with carbon free sources of energy.  A 2035 world which consumes energy at the level of 2010 Bulgaria implies more than a doubling of needed carbon-free energy. Germany and US equivalency implies almost a quadrupling and close to a sextupling, respectively. Is it any wonder that many stabilization scenarios used in climate policy analyses keep poor people mostly poor?

So what to take from these numbers? I suggest three conclusions.

First, a world of energy access as that concept is understood by most people in the wealthy parts of the world implies a level of energy consumption far beyond that contained in conventional projections of consumption for the next several decades. Securing such energy access will require much greater policy attention than has so far been devoted to the issue. Just as in the US in my grandparents’ generation, market forces alone will be insufficient to provide energy for all. Concerted public action, perhaps coordinated to some degree globally, will be necessary.

Second, the magnitude of the challenge of providing energy for all is at least as large as the challenge implied by accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and perhaps many times larger. Independent of the climate issue, there are good justifications why diversifying the global energy mix beyond fossil fuels makes sense, for security, environmental, health and economic reasons.

It would therefore seem obvious that those who prioritize climate might find common ground with those who favor increasing energy access to support major new initiatives in energy innovation and deployment. Such an approach would at least address the split between rich and poor nations that has characterized international climate policies for decades. Further, a wealthier world with more equity in energy access will be far better positioned to deal with the technological challenges of decarbonization. Those in the climate movement who express frustration that their issue has not been judged important enough to motivate aggressive steps toward energy innovation have overlooked energy access as a much broader base for securing and sustaining broad support around the world for advances in energy technologies and their deployment.

Finally, independent of time scale, the world is irreversibly moving towards greater energy access – in fits and starts to be sure -- but there can be no doubt about the aspirations of the almost 6 billion people in non-OECD countries who collectively consume as much energy as the 1.2 billion in OECD countries. The world of the future will consume vastly more energy than the world today. The only questions are how efficiently and effectively we get to that high energy world. Putting energy access at the center of policy discussions would be a smart first step.


  • I think the assumption that we’ll need ever increasing energy is a bad one, even to bring others around the world up to our standard of living. We’ll either figure out how to be much more efficient, or we’ll be living like Mad Max. I hope it’s the former.

    By Don Duggan-Haas on 2013 02 26

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  • We’ve guessed wrong in the past (by overestimating how much energy we’ll use in the future) and we’re doing it again, I think.

    See the graph here:;
    Granted, this is about gluttonous Americans, but the rest of the world isn’t going to catch up to industrialized lifestyles with incandescent bulbs, and all the other efficiency gains that are out there but haven’t replaced our old appliances and infrastructure importantly including inefficient power plants.

    Here’s the caption and source for that figure:
    Figure 8 shows one such evaluation. It compares US energy consumption in 2000 (the grey line at the bottom) with predictions made by several groups of experts between 1960 and 1980. Each group overestimated future consumption, often by a wide margin. In hindsight, a major source of these experts’error was not anticipating how much the oil price shocks of the 1970s would increase energy efficiency and reduce energy consumption. Most of these analysts gave just a single best guess (the black dots), making it impossible to tell what they saw as the range of possible values. Three analyses did provide such ranges (the vertical bars). In each case, the actual value (in 2000) was outside that range, meaning that these experts’ overestimates (of what consumption would be) were also overconfident (because they treated the actual value as implausible).

    Fischhoff, Baruch; Kadvany, John (2011-05-26). Risk: A Very Short Introduction (Kindle Locations 1085-1091). Oxford University Press.

    By Don Duggan-Haas on 2013 02 28

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  • Second, the magnitude of the challenge of providing energy for all is at least as large as the challenge implied by accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and perhaps many times larger.

    There’s no technical problem with providing energy for all. The problem is entirely with paying for it.

    If all the money being currently wasted on inefficient “green” schemes in the West was spent building power stations, a lot of the Third World would be much better off. Far more useful than most of the aid we currently send.

    Those in the climate movement who express frustration that their issue has not been judged important enough to motivate aggressive steps toward energy innovation have overlooked energy access as a much broader base for securing and sustaining broad support around the world for advances in energy technologies and their deployment.

    But the eco-Green fringe aren’t interested in advances in deployment of more energy, because their aim is to reduce industrialisation. Carbon worry is only a useful method. If that fails, they will move on to bio-diversity or something else.

    They will never work with people like you Roger. You want to make people’s lives better in a physical, achievable way. They don’t. Their aims are to make people’s lives better by having a more spiritual world, with less industry. Never mind that makes them poor and miserable, they will be helping Gaia.

    By Mooloo on 2013 03 01

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  • Today, inexpensive, reliable and plentiful access to electricity is something that most people in OECD countries take for granted.
    Until its gone.  It would require only a few weeks without power to reduce an OECD nation to chaos and collapse.

    By ferd berple on 2013 03 04

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  • Good piece - only spoiled by having to read the absurd stuff from the climate change denier (who is probably an obesity and evolution denier too!) Why are there so many people who want to pave the planet? John Stuart Mill argued against such destructive economic thinking over 150 years ago - but the thing is that they want all the world to look like America.

    By Geof Jones on 2013 03 06

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  • Nice info

    By jesus on 2013 10 14

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  • Achieve universal electricity access by 2030.

    By Parmionova on 2013 10 24

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About Roger Pielke Jr

I am a professor of environmental studies at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I also have appointments as a Research Fellow, Risk Frontiers, Macquarie University; Visiting Senior Fellow, Mackinder Programme, London School of Economics; and Senior Visiting Fellow at the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes of Arizona State University. I am also a Senior Fellow of The Breakthrough Institute, a progressive think tank.

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